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Academy of Achievement: 2014 Student Letters
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Academy of Achievement: Student Letters

Since earning her undergraduate and graduate degrees in electrical engineering at Stanford University, Wren Dougherty has led the design and development of a series of devices to improve our knowledge of the day-to-day function of our bodies. These include a Bluetooth-enabled device that monitors heart rate, respiration, motion, and temperature; a wireless ECG/EMG patch for personal use; and a system to monitor blood chemistry via microneedles in the interstitial fluid. She is active in the Quantified Self movement, which seeks to facilitate self-knowledge through personal data-gathering technology. Now a hardware engineer at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, she was named one of the "Top Innovators Under 40" by Medical Device and Diagnostic Industry.

February 12, 2015

Wayne and Catherine Reynolds
Academy of Achievement
Washington, D.C.

Dear wonderful Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds!

When I was younger, I was of the strict opinion that the magnitude of one's gratitude was directly proportional to the amount of glitter one put into the envelope of the thank you note. However, now that I have matured, I'll try to restrict myself to words.

I've known that I'm a pretty lucky person for a while. Not the much-touted "hard works breeds luck" lucky, but actually just quite blessed. I first realized this when I started working in fast food. Several of my co-workers would do an eight-hour shift at one restaurant, eight hours at another, then go home to take care of their families, never expressing resentment or discontent. I quickly realized that in almost every way, they were far better humans than me -- kind, selfless, and dedicated -- yet I was presented with many opportunities that they never had.

This was a clear mandate to me to both become a better human and use the opportunities I had to give back, leading me into volunteering and developing medical devices. But that mandate is at an all-time high after the extreme honor I had in attending the International Achievement Summit.

From the first person I met, my view of the world started to change. I learned that my heroes who had seemed to transcend mortality were actually real people. And then I met the delegates who were making a mark on the world with passion and dedication. I, like many others, simply couldn't see how I could belong in such an echelon of humanity. By then end of the weekend, I had a newfound belief in what one person could do to change the world, along with a strong resolve to make a mark of my own.

What I took away most, though, was the affirmation that kindness, decency, and genuine compassion were at the root of the lives that I so admired. Living in Silicon Valley, it's easy to think that success is determined by funding and lucrative exits. But each powerful story I heard instead spoke of following passion and finding meaning in one's work. It can be a daunting, almost toxic thing to be surrounded by great accomplishment, but hearing the stories behind each success turned potential insecurity and intimidation into inspiration. Not inspiration to chase "success," but rather to pursue what I believe in, while embodying openness and compassion.

Adequate thanks may not be possible to express, but I think of the two of you each day when I reflect on what I'm grateful for, both on my behalf and for the many lives you've inspired with your kindness, generosity and open-mindedness.

Sparkles, Wren Dougherty

Wren Dougherty
Apple Computer

Iman Ben Chaibah is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sail eMagazine, an online monthly magazine covering society, culture, psychology, arts, sports, parenting and more for an audience of young Emiratis. Prior to founding Sail, she headed the IT department for the retail operation of the Emaar Group, the international property developer and real estate service company. Winner of the UAE's Young Digital Publishing Entrepreneur Award for the year 2014, she earned her bachelor's with honors in computer science at the University of Sharjah in the UAE, and her master's in project management at the British University in Dubai, where she wrote her thesis on organizational innovation.

September 16, 2014

Wayne and Catherine Reynolds
Academy of Achievement
Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds,

Thank you both for this mind-blowing Summit! I'm writing to express my deepest gratitude for this invitation.

I keep remembering all the great delegates we met from across the world, and all the incredible honorees we met and heard speak to us directly. I still can't believe we heard firsthand from so many Nobel laureates talking to us about their experiences and journeys, and from so many diplomats, generals, artists and producers! I loved that the universal message from most of them was that they failed for many years and faced many rejections before they finally broke through. This gives us hope, to know that we are on the right track of breaking the mold and breaking through barriers to build a new future.

Honestly, more than once during the sessions I felt like hugging myself tight and sobbing from being so overwhelmed by the greatness we were surrounded with! Your message kept ringing in my head: "Make sure you go around and get to know new people, even people who you disagree with. Widen your horizon." I did, and I learned a lot from all those small talks, whether it was things that have to do with my startup, with business in general, with lifestyles or education, and so much more. The fact that all the honorees were so humble and reachable and open to our questions after the sessions was amazing.

Mrs. Reynolds kept introducing each of us to more and more people (being the amazing social butterfly that she is) and then before she continued on she'd say: "I just want to make sure all you smart people know each other!" That almost brought me to tears. I also really love the idea of the iPad, that we have all the delegates' full profiles and their contact information so we can stay in touch, through that and through the Facebook group you've created. What an amazing network to stay in touch with!

And oh my God! Diana Ross? Come on! I keep bragging about it every two minutes to my family and friends.

This entire Summit was definitely one of the top experiences of my life, one that I will always remember. Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds so much for organizing this life-changing and soul-touching experience. No words are enough to express my gratitude. I hope we stay in touch, and I would love to be involved in any way in future events. If you host a Summit in the UAE, I'd be honored to moderate sessions and help out in any way possible.

Thank you... for everything!


Iman Ben-Chaibah
United Arab Emirates Scholar
Founder, Sail eMagazine

Following graduation from Carleton College, Erica Nakajima conducted a year of full-time research at Yale University School of Medicine's Department of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases before she was selected as a member of the prestigious Physician Scientist Training Program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Last year, she was selected as cancer biology and immunology platform session co-chair of the 2013 meeting of Hughes Fellows, and served as the Fellows' Midwest regional co-chairperson. Her doctoral research at Pittsburgh concerns identifying the presence of metabolic symbiosis in head and neck squamous cell carcinoma xenografts and human tumor samples.

September 20, 2014

Wayne and Catherine Reynolds
Academy of Achievement
Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds,

Since returning to Pittsburgh, I have been thinking of exactly how to convey my gratitude for the opportunity to attend the International Achievement Summit. I am still absorbing the many lessons of perseverance, bravery and creativity that were offered during the Summit by so many illustrious honorees. For me, the Summit was a call to think and act boldly, and to be less fearful of failure. From the Nobel laureates who pursued their scientific investigations despite repeated rejections of their grants, to the steadfast courage of General David Petraeus and Admiral William McRaven, I was inspired every time a speaker came to the podium.

It was equally stimulating to meet the other delegates and learn about the ways in which they are improving healthcare, education, governance and technology so early in their careers. These influences were very well timed, as the Monday following the Summit I submitted my residency application, and am now pondering the future of my medical career. My mind has been full of questions since my return. How can I offer "simple means of support" that have the potential to make great changes for those around me, as Admiral McRaven suggested? How can I help to advance medical care through exacting research? And how will I "love the little grey bushes," as Athol Fugard urged us all to do? My world has expanded exponentially in the space of a few days.

Thank you for thinking and acting boldly to build countless bridges between individuals who might otherwise never cross paths. Thank you for the reminder that the world is rich with ideas, inventions, and actions meant to improve life upon it. Attending the Summit was an honor that I will now spend decades trying to live up to.

Best regards,

Erica Nakajima
Howard Hughes Medical Institute Medical Research Fellow
University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine

P.S. Thank you also for the great pleasure of dining with Dr. Ignazio Marino. Learning about the transplant medicine he pioneered at Pitt was fascinating and inspiring.

Jessica Steinberg graduated magna cum laude from Rice University in Houston, with a degree in biological sciences. As a Marshall Scholar she completed her first graduate degree in global health and development at University College London. Her internships, volunteer and public health experiences include service in Mexico, Guatemala, India and Vietnam, and as an emergency medical technician. She recently completed a second master's in epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and is now pursing medical studies at Stanford University School of Medicine.

September 25, 2014

Wayne and Catherine Reynolds
Academy of Achievement
Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds,

I wanted to write and thank you for my life-changing experience at the Academy of Achievement. I could never have anticipated the incredible impact of the event on my outlook, motivation and passion.

In the months leading to the Academy of Achievement International Summit, events in my personal life and career had decreased my confidence. My goals in women's health and community development seemed increasingly unfeasible. I was searching for reassurance and affirmation that my passion was not naïve and my hard work not in vain.

At the Summit, speaking with my incredible peers and the inspiring honorees reignited my passion and commitment. At dinner the first evening I sat with Bina Valsangkar, who shares my interest in maternal and children's health and using health as a means for socio-economic empowerment. Hearing her story about moving to India and risking her career to serve others moved me. The next day, Dr. Robert Langer described several job and patent rejections, and Dr. Frances Arnold told the story of a non-traditional path to become the second female engineer to apply to Princeton. Their talks reminded me of the importance of perseverance in the face of adversity.

At lunch, I spoke with Mimi Haas about working with underserved communities in San Francisco. She and I both believe supporting women and mothers from before birth and throughout an infant's life is critical for reversing the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Our mutual passion has led to a growing association. We are planning on meeting in the coming weeks to discuss potential areas of collaboration.

These stories only begin to capture the impact of the Summit on me. I will cherish memories of dancing near Diana Ross (one of my favorite female artists of all time!), talking about pubs in Cambridge with Dr. James Watson, and asking Dr. Guth about the beginning of the universe, among others. All of this would not have been possible without your hard work.

I deeply appreciate the time and effort it must have taken to bring together such a tremendous group of people. All of the details of the weekend were perfect. From the moment I arrived at the Four Seasons, I was in awe, not only of the seamless organization of events, but also of the kindness of the Summit staff. I felt completely welcomed and taken care of.

I am still processing all of the incredible moments at the Summit. I am so grateful to both of you for reigniting my passion and belief in the power of the individual. Thank you for an unforgettable weekend. Your work truly changes the lives of the delegates and honorees.


Jessica (Jecca) Steinberg
Marshall Scholar, Stanford University

Last year Meera Menon won the Tribeca Film Festival's Nora Ephron Prize, awarded annually to "a female film director of exceptional promise," and was named to Glamour magazine's list of "35 Women Under 35 Running Hollywood." A John Jay Scholar at Columbia University, she earned her undergraduate degree in history, and English and comparative literature, and completed the master's program in editing, directing and producing at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. A former Mac technician at Apple, she has wored as a producer's intern and director's assistant in London and Los Angeles, including stints with the prolific Bollywood director Priyadarshan, and at the award-winning cable television series Mad Men. She is now writing and directing her first feature film, Farah Goes Bang.

September 17, 2014

Wayne and Catherine Reynolds
Academy of Achievement
Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds,

I cannot begin to express how grateful I am for this past weekend. It was beyond inspiring. In fact, I am still adjusting back to my reality. I meant to send you this email as soon as I got back!

There are so many incredible things that happened that I will never forget. First and foremost, I got to meet George Lucas! As a former USC film student, there is nothing more unbelievable than that fact alone.

On top of that, to feel so consistently humbled by the work the fellow student delegates were doing -- it was a truly welcome and necessary experience for me to be reminded of how everyone, no matter what their field, aspires towards that common goal of making the world a better place.

Perhaps no moment summarizes this more clearly than seeing Diana Ross perform, scanning my eyes to the left, and seeing James Watson, starry-eyed and mouth agape, like a teenage kid at a One Direction concert. After a weekend of feeling so diminutive about the work I do in the face of such scientific and global achievement, it was a much-needed lesson on how a transcendent moment of entertainment can inspire those high-achieving minds. How, perhaps, that great mind that discovered the secret to life may not have done so were life not so worth living sometimes.

Mr. Watson's face on that evening's closing festivities will forever be etched in my mind as I continue to make movies that also seek to give, in their own small but earnest way.

With deep and abiding gratitude,

Meera Menon
Writer and Film Director
Nora Ephron Prize Recipient

As Executive Director of Support for International Change, a rural health service provider in East Africa, Erica Mackey observed that "the world's poorest people pay the most for the dirtiest energy." A fluent Swahili speaker with over ten years of experience in Sub-Saharan Africa, she co-founded Off.Grid:Electric to bring solar power to Africa. Originally backed with $100,000 from USAID, the company won the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund grant competition. From its base in Arusha, Tanzania, Off.Grid is scaling up to light one million homes throughout East Africa, where 85 percent of homes are off the grid. She holds a bachelor's degree in ecology from UCLA and an MBA from Oxford Saïd Business School. In 2012 she was recognized by Forbes as one of its "30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs."

October 5, 2014

Wayne and Catherine Reynolds
Academy of Achievement
Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds,

I have to start off by apologizing for taking almost a month to write. I felt like I needed a little bit of space between the Summit and reality to let the shock value wear off enough that I could attempt to express how impactful the entire experience was for me. I should also admit that since I have lived in Africa for most of the past decade, usually get my news from print rather than TV. I found myself in a constant state of surprise -- after talking to others at dinner, a reception, or a coffee break -- when their name badges flipped around, immediately giving context to the passion they brought to our conversation. I had a very surreal moment working out in the gym on the ground floor and looking next to me to realize that I was running with General Petraeus. That was the longest I have ever managed to stay on a treadmill!

In addition to the multitude of inspiring chats I had with people who can only be described as legends, I also made some incredible contacts amongst the delegates and sponsors. Just to give two highlights: I am in the process of hiring a couple of delegate-recommended, Harvard-educated Tanzanian engineers who want to return to their country. I am also going to meet with Francine LeFrak in Rwanda, as my company is launching there in the middle of 2015, and she has graciously offered to share her government relationships. The list goes on...

I am now sitting on a plane on my way from Tanzania to Brazil to attend TEDGlobal in Rio. In preparation for my talk, and in my leadership of my team over the past month, I find myself fixated on Admiral McRaven's talk on the little things that count, Athol Fugard's emphasis on humility, and Joi Ito's focus on the white space between the black dots.

Off.Grid:Electric is growing its customer base 10 percent month-on-month, and we are doubling our staff count every six months; we have hired 30 new people since the Summit! Additionally, we have just closed a $16 million equity round to accelerate our drive to light Africa within this decade.

With all this growth, it is easy to tell yourself that you're too busy to spend time with your field staff. The messages from these legends reminded me to prioritize moments with all members of my team, and always to make time to spend in the homes of our customers. It is the small things that count. It is undeniable that my leadership approach was renewed and improved over the few short days of the Summit, and for that I will be forever grateful.

Thank you, your family, and your team for creating such a unique and magical space to absorb greatness and to be inspired.


Erica Mackey
Co-Founder and COO, Off.Grid:Electric